Reflection 88: To-Do Lists

April 10, 2009


(Copyright © 2009)


Something I’m supposed to do flits into my mind for a tenth of a second, then is gone and I can’t remember what it was. I try to recreate the situation that brought it to mind, but often can’t figure what that situation might have been. This happens all the time. So I make lists of things to do. As I get something done, I cross it off. And keep adding new items as they come to mind.


Is my consciousness failing? Am I on the skids? I don’t know, but I think I’ve always been like this—even in school. I’ve been a listmaker ever since I can remember. I was so square in high school I got into the habit of writing down lists of each night’s homework; my version of pleasure being to cross each one off as I finished it. Now I have scraps all over my apartment reminding me of things to do—some are six months old. I’ve never gotten around to reminding myself to throw old lists away.


Here’s a list I found this morning. It seems to be about three weeks old. Old enough for me to have checked off almost everything on it. My handwriting isn’t that neat so I retype it here:


ü Negs to Eric Fri  [re. scanning of aerial photos]

ü 10:00 Kate McDonald  [re. drymount eelgrass poster]

ü John Sowles re poster  [fyi e-mail]

ü Newsletter Articles  [aerial photo, shorebirds, update]

ü send Hilary blurb  [e-mail poster abstract for program]

ü bank deposit  [royalty check]

û Charlie Todd eagle report e-mail  [no reply]

ü 2008 aerial mosaic w. S. Sjoberg  [re. membership perq.]

ü TBAG update  [re. January advisors meeting]

ü e-mail Jon Lewis summer meet, July 9 [re. program]

ü Shorebirds—J. Sowles, Margi Huber  [re. monitoring]

û Eric digitize aerials Fri.  [duplicate reminder]

ü floss  [shopping]

ü bananas  [“]

ü onions  [“]

ü Dove  [“]

ü cashew butter  [I’m allergic to peanut butter]

ü corn thins  [I’m allergic to wheat]

û bananas  [duplicate reminder]


Since my lists depend on jotting down items as I think of them, they have a free-form feel that transcends any kind of order or priority. I include just enough detail to remind me of what I mean, and that’s good enough.


What interests me about such lists is their relationship to consciousness. I generate them almost at random, whenever I think of something I want to do and am afraid I’ll forget. Such lists are made out of a sense of duty or responsibility, not passion. If they were driven by passion, I would remember them. Without that extra oomph, items tend not to outlast the duration of short-term memory. If I don’t write them down within seconds, they’re gone.


To get them back, I have to recreate or simulate the situation in which each item is important. If I can recall that setting or context, then very often the item springs to mind without further prompting. It’s just that I keep jumping from one situation to another faster than working memory can keep up with me. So various unremarkable items fall into the cracks in-between like so many crumbs.


Several of the items I wish to remember are leftovers from various meetings I have attended. The 7th item concerning Charlie Todd is a reminder to e-mail him about the breeding success of eagles in Taunton Bay for the 2008 season. Charlie is an endangered species biologist for the state, and he is the best source of current information because he flies over most of the eagle nests in Maine several times a year and knows what he’s talking about. He is also extremely busy. The editor of Friends of Taunton Bay Newsletter asked me for an eagle update at our February meeting. Once such meetings are over, I tend not to think of them until the next one. So I make notes to myself to do what I said I’d do to avoid showing up a month later empty-handed.


The Jon Lewis item 3 below Charlie Todd came from the same meeting. I was to ask him if he would talk us through an underwater video he made for an oyster aquaculture lease application. I’d seen the video at an aquaculture lease hearing, and suggested it as the basis for a program at our annual membership meeting in July. Here I am trying to be responsible once again. If I don’t write such requests down where I will see them, I never think of them again because I’m on to something else.


So goes everyday life from chore to chore. At least some days that’s how it seems. Left to steering my own consciousness toward activities that are meaningful to me, I would dispense with everything else in order to concentrate on jobs I am passionate about. Those I remember on my own because the flow of my life is all the situation I need to keep them at the front of my mind.


What I see now is that to-do lists create a wholly new situation expressly for the sake of remembering an assortment of items relevant to a variety of situations having nothing to do with one another. Things-to-do becomes a meta situation subtending all lesser situations. My consciousness came up with that strategy on its own. Yours probably did, too. How creative is that! And it works. Putting everything down on one list creates a situation that prods our minds to act. It works because there is an emotional impetus associated with putting something on that super list. Which makes it easier to recall later on. Too, there is satisfaction in the act of crossing items off one by one. Amazing, how consciousness monitors itself.


To-do lists, then, are definitely in the feedback loop by which consciousness engages the mysterious world. Even though my personal habitat—my apartment—is a mess, I get a lot done on various fronts because of such lists. Jotting things down involves physical effort and discipline as an aid to remembering them. And seeing the list provides visual input that serves the same purpose.


In The Mind of a Mnemonist, Luria gives details of situations his patient, a memory expert, creates in order to remember incredibly detailed series of things to recall. He visualized street scenes in his mind, and draped visual clues to encounter as he would stroll along, encountering one clue after another. Trouble was, he cluttered his mind with such scenes and could never get rid of them. Me, I merely clutter up my apartment, then conveniently lose each list under layers of new lists. Either I’ve seen to every item—or it’s too late now to remember what I haven’t done.




2 Responses to “Reflection 88: To-Do Lists”

  1. Reminds me (pun intended) of the myth about writing in Plato’s Phaedrus: “Socrates tells a brief legend, critically commenting on the gift of writing from the Egyptian god Theuth to King Thamus, who was to disperse Theuth’s gifts to the people of Egypt. After Theuth remarks on his discovery of writing as a remedy for the memory, Thamus responds that its true effects are likely to be the opposite; it is a remedy for reminding, not remembering, he says, with the appearance but not the reality of wisdom. Future generations will hear much without being properly taught, and will appear wise but not be so, making them difficult to get along with.”
    Wikipedia: Phaedrus (dialogue)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: